Lessons Learned from Ellis Peters & Agatha Christie: Hide Your Clues in History.

History has always been the most important and most dangerous field of study in my eyes. As a student, I found the world of wartime propaganda utterly fascinating–how with the right words and imagery, facts and past events could be tainted, twisted, even erased from the society’s memory.  As a Christian, I cannot understand why those of, say, the Amish life, live by “forgive and forget,” which has lead to a terrifyingly high rate of sexual abuse in families, since the abuser never faces any consequence for the act. He asks for forgiveness; therefore, the sin is forgiven and must be forgotten, and nothing prevents him from raping or molesting yet again. Without history, we lose our only true teacher of human nature’s scope: its heights of selflessness, its depths of wretchedness.

History is not something one often trips upon by accident. There is but the single weed budding from roots that run deep and far, or the curved stone in the dirt which, as one digs, and brushes, and digs, becomes a bone. History hides itself in the present mess, and hides well, just as any good mystery should.

Ellis Peters, aka Edith Pargeter, knew this all too well as she wrote The Cadfael Chronicles.  Her stories of this Rare Benedictine are set in the 12th century during a civil war between two monarchs vying for England’s throne. The time’s rife with secret messages, castle sieges, hidden treasures, betrayals and all sorts of other delicious things that make the period rich with living…and killing, but also living.

Some years have passed since I’d read a Cadfael, and I decided to rectify that when we traveled to the North Woods (the way up north where the bald eagles hang out in ditches and bears will meander down your driveway and turtle nests are smashed by an old Polish woman with a shovel). I can read in the car; Bo cannot, so he prefers to drive. (That, and I apparently drive a bit too crazy for his liking. Wuss.) This title was not adapted for the Mystery! series starring thespian treasure Sir Derek Jacobi, which meant the mystery would be new to me. Yay!

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The Hermit of Eyton Forest begins with, of course, death, but this one’s natural: a father dies of his battle injuries, orphaning his son who was already in the abbey’s care. When the abbey refuses to send him home with his scheming grandmother, who has a marriage in the works for this ten-year-old, the grandmother takes in “a reverend pilgrim” and his young assistant to live in the hermitage on her land between the abbey and the boy’s inherited manor (33). The detail quickly fades in a passage of time, and it sounds like this pilgrim Cuthred has changed the grandmother’s mind about suing the abbey for custody.

Act I winds down with a conversation between friends: Cadfael and the Sheriff of Shrewsbury. War-talk is very common in these books, especially since Shrewsbury isn’t far from the Welsh border, where many fugitives run. So when Chapter 4 meandered through a conversation about King Stephen holding Empress Maud under siege in Oxford, my eyes, erm, well, dazed over somewhat.

“There’s a tale he tells of a horse found straying not far from [Oxford], in the woods close to the road to Wallingford. Some time ago, this was, about the time all roads of Oxford were closed, and the town on fire. A horse dragging a blood-stained saddle, and saddlebags slit open and emptied. A groom who’d slipped out of the town before the ring closed recognised horse and harness as belonging to one Renaud Bourchier, a knight in the empress’s service, and close in her confidence too. My man says it’s known she sent him out of the garrison to try and break through the king’s lines and carry a message to Wallingford for her.”

Cadfael ceased to ply the hoe he was drawing leisurely between his herb beds, and turned his whole attention upon his friend. “To Brian FitzCount, you mean?” (53)

Blah blah, war things, blah blah. Get to the murder already!

But Peters is no fool. If she’s spending a little time on “war stuff,” it’s for a reason. On the one hand, this gives us a taste of how monarchs struggle to reach out for help in the midst of a siege. It’s an historically accurate strategy, and a fine moment on which to focus for a sharper taste of medieval warfare vs the typical “argh” and swords banging and catapults and the like we always see in movies. On the other hand, this past event is a clue to solve the murders: a nobleman hunting a runaway villein is found stabbed in the back, and the hermit Cuthred is also found dead. Peters buried the clue in that conversation of war, that which we readers would think is just material for the period, not for the plot.

Yet it all comes very much to the forefront in Act III. The nobleman’s son, for instance, sets the reveal into motion when he sees the pilgrim’s body:

“But I know this man! No, that’s to say too much, for he never said his name. But I’ve seen him and talked with him. A hermit–he? I never saw sign of it then! He wore his hair trimmed in Norman fashion…And he wore sword and dagger into the bargain,” said Aymer positively, “and as if he was well accustomed to the use of them, too….It was only one night’s lodging, but I diced with him for dinner, and watched my father play a game of chess with him.” (202)

It’s not like the medieval period had finger prints on database or, you know, pictures for comparison. Identity hinged on being known, and in that kind of war-torn world, you never know who’s going to know you. In this case, Aymer, son of the dead nobleman, unwittingly revealed this holy man to be a fraud, therefore ruining the grandmother’s schemes to have the holy hermit force her grandson to marry a neighbor’s daughter for more land. The nobleman had gone to the hermit, thinking his assistant might be the runaway villein he’s hunting–and here he sees the soldier he had played games with posing as a pilgrim.

So, who is this hermit that killed to keep his true identity dead in history, and who killed him? Not the nobleman, being already dead and all. And not the nobleman’s son.

Well, there is a falconer who has been loitering about the abbey, and who uses Empress Maud’s coins for alms. Cadfael, being a soldier in the Crusades before coming to the cloister, has his own opinions about divine duties in warfare, and chooses to say nothing rather than speak with the abbot, who is publicly aligned with King Stephen: “My besetting sin…is curiosity. But I am not loose-mouthed. Nor do I hold any honest man’s allegiance against him” (143).  Turns out this falconer is on a hunt for none other than the man who had taken off with the treasure and war correspondence from the bloody saddlebags discussed on page 53, and this thief was none other than the fake hermit Cuthred:

“He had killed Cuthred. In fair fight. He laid his sword by, because Cuthred had none. Dagger against dagger he fought and killed him…for good reason,” said Cadfael. “You’ll not have forgotten the tale we heard of the empress’s messenger sent out of Oxford, just as King Stephen shut his iron ring round the castle. Sent forth with money and jewels and a letter for Brian FitzCount, cut off from her in the woods along the road, with blood-stained harness and empty saddlebags. The body they never found.” (219)

Had Peters simply dumped this information on us at the end–as Agatha Christie has done a few times with Poirot–I would have been pissed. But Peters didn’t; she took advantage of Act I’s slow build and shared the clue inside her war stories. Readers may not remember this tale by story’s end, but Peters doesn’t cheat them with an absurd reveal thrown in at the end, either. She shares only the history that matters; it’s the reader’s responsibility to remember it.

On the flip-side of this, when someone hacks up a mystery by throwing history at us too early, I get rather miffed. Murder on the Orient Express is guilty of just such a crime.

No, no, not the book. There’s a reason so many look to this particular Poirot title as one of Christie’s masterworks. The first Act establishes Poirot on his way home from a case on the continent; this is why he eventually boards the Orient Express with other passengers.  The body’s discovered in Chapter 5, and it’s in Chapter 7 we get the history-reveal:

Orient-ExpressThe doctor watched [Poirot] with great interest. He flattened out the two humps of wire, and with great care wriggled the charred scrap of paper on to one of them. He clapped the other on top of it and then, holding both pieces together with the tongs, held the whole thing over the flame of the spirit lamp….It was a very tiny scrap. Only three words and a part of another showed.

-member little Daisy Armstrong. (161)

This clue both slows and tightens the pace: Poirot and his comrade recall this kidnapping and murder of the child Daisy a few years ago. It turns out the murder victim at their feet was that same kidnapper. From here the identities of the other passengers are worked out as well as their connections to the Armstrong child.

No, the book is not the guilty party. That verdict belongs to the 1974 film.

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It begins with a newspaper/newsreel montage about the kidnapping and murder of child Daisy Armstrong. It lasts a minute, and that’s a minute too long.  

It then jumps to five years later, and the gathering of characters to the train.

For one who’s unfamiliar with the book, this jump from dead child to Istanbul has got to be really confusing. For those who read the book–like me–this little montage kills the mystery. What does that footage do? Well, it shows readers that there’s a revenge in the works. We already want justice for that little girl, so whoever gets killed on the train deserves it before it even happens, which means readers won’t dare to connect with any of those other characters because they know one of them’s a wretch who needs justice bled out of him. In the book, we know nothing incriminating about any of the characters in Act I. In Act II, we’re still getting over the shock of a murder happening in an isolated, snow-bound train, where we know the murderer must still be hiding among innocent lives who sure need protection, and then, then, we find out the victim was a child murderer. It’s a double-whammy of a reveal thanks to present and past smashing together.

But when readers learn the history first, they know what to expect in the present. This is a must for so many aspects of life and story alike, but in mysteries? Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is not knowing what to expect.

PS: I dare to get excited about the upcoming Branagh version of the story despite Branagh’s mustache. Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Art of Voice Changery, Part 2

In my previous post on voice changery, I spoke of finding the right book with a character to inspire the voice of your hero. This isn’t to say you’re trying to build a carbon copy of a character you really liked in another book—hardly that. Rather, it’s all about discovering the unique rhythms, quirks, and language of your hero’s speech. I’ve got four different female heroes to write about in my series, and sure as Hades don’t want them all to sound the same. Wynne, key protagonist in my current WIP Beauty’s Price, is inspired by Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen tells Elizabeth’s story with a sweet–and some well-timed sassy–lyrical prose. The rhythm and melody rise and fall and rise again, just as the heart of Elizabeth as it slowly wakens itself to love another. This sort of sweet, lyrical connection between style and emotion is just what I want for Wynne.

But reading the words of another isn’t enough for me. I’ve often talked about the importance of music in helping me write. I needed to find a theme for Wynne, one that would help me see her part of life in Droma and get into her head.

First, her life at home. I remembered dedicating several pages to Gwen’s thorp and the woods surrounding it. Wynne would need something similar…sort of. Her father is a trader, so they won’t have their own manor to run. They’ll live in a trading town…one along the river Gasirad…not that I knew the trading towns of Droma, so I had to bother Michael Dellert for more about his universe. Together we worked out the perfect town for Wynne, one that was along the river and not too far from Aneasruthán for her participation in Middler’s Pride.

The Dells of the Wisconsin River

The Dells of the Wisconsin River – unique sandstone formations that occur only in a couple places in the world.

Now Wisconsin is rich in waterways, many of them hidden by bluffs and valleys. I see…something. I see Wynne on a hillside, looking down upon the Gasirad, wide and strong by her town, wide enough for two lanes of barges, following and fighting the current. I see a collection of wooden buildings, enough to warrant some streets. I see the watermill to the north to help those who farmed, and a tannery at the south, wreaking havoc on the land around it with all its filth and toxins.

And I see Wynne really, really hating that.

I have a few photos of Wisconsin like this, but a bit too industrial for my liking:

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La Crosse

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Port of Green Bay

I need a visual of something on a smaller scale. But you saw my town; even those built around the river have long since stopped treating the river as anything other than a pretty touch to the town’s atmosphere. Oh, look, a charming river with a charming bridge. And there’s some charming families catching fish for fun, how all so very charming.

4a24c1593c13ced51058f9512617b540So I need to think of a town dependent upon its river, like Hafren, and I have to keep history in mind, or Michael will kick my creative butt. Considering the early Medieval style of everything, I have only one frame of context from which I can easily draw: Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries. (Like it’d be anything but murder mysteries.)

I popped in St. Peter’s Fair for a visual. I found an excerpt from the episode online, if you care to view it:

Not my usual dose of photography, but I knew it would help to see people interact within a medieval town. Too often we’ve romanticized life of that period (something the amazing Terry Jones discusses in Medieval Lives, a series both hilarious and instructive), and I wanted something not afraid of dirt. The splintering planks upon the homes. Various piles of horse dung in the road. Chickens with curious escaping skills. Few windows. Few rooms. Few extras in life. Fences, though, those would be useful.

Forms were taking shape. Time for some color and life:

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Time for music.

So far I had been digging through scores of period movies, such as Harry Gregson-Williams’ Kingdom of Heaven. It’s on this score where I found the music that embodied the busy trading center that is Hafren:

The reeds are soft with summer, and Gasirad sings when the sun shines upon her. Listen with me. Does not the water over stones make you think of lyre strings? I like to sit here, where the tannery does not hurt the water so. The goddess has been kind so far, but I have no doubt a day will come when she finds herself too sickened by Hafren’s industry, and we will all wake to find our river gone. Never underestimate a goddess—or any girl, I think—of strong mind.

North of Hafren, the water dances like my feet. When the sun warms skin, when the bees feast among the blossoms, when the fish leap from water for dragonflies, I am able to forget the grime and odors of town, and turn to kinder, better things.

My father is due to arrive with a caravan today, and my mother has stressed all daughters must be present for his arrival. Will you walk with me, at least to town? It is but a few rolling hills away.

I am thankful for these fertile slopes. Gasirad’s happy waters grow stronger crops here. Take care with your feet lest you find yourself trampling a seedling or droppings. I do not like to task Hafren’s farmers. Visiting caravans are rarely kind to them, and never face punishment for gleaning. Step this way, please, to the oxen-path. Oh, Gasirad. You flow as falling stars before Hafren, yet we send you off soiled and used. Abused, I should say, but a merchant’s daughter is not allowed such thoughts. Trade is life, and industry is trade. At least the tannery is there, a short ways south of town, so the water is not so terrible until Hafren’s end. The mill for carrying water to the fields is at the northernmost, see it? Rather hidden by the trees, I know, but if you ignore the farmer yelling at the mule, you can just hear the clack-clack of the buckets tipping.

Hafren is neither thorp nor city. There is a street of homes, true, and it connects to the hostel street, which turns there, sharply, for the ancestral shrine, annoying river and land caravans alike. We  must have good pasture for livestock, a stretch of sand for small boats and long docks for bigger barges. Our high street is dedicated to eateries and hostels. We are a perpetual hayloft for travelers, with our own wares barely noticed. Perhaps that is best. Those attracted to our town are not the sort I care to think about.

Mind our rock fences–they are rather low, I’m afraid, just enough to scrape one’s ankle terribly if not careful. Turn here. Market street may look wide enough for a joust, but that is only because the selling carts have left for the day. They sit in the middle, and the shops remove their shelf-shutters, and this place soon overflows with traveling caravans, farmer’s wares, the tannery’s wares, and tinkers. Even artisans from villages nearby will come once a month before midday to set up near the edge of market for the sake of shadow from the sun.

Why do you look at me like that? I have lived here long enough to see a pattern, that is all.

Ah, here we are. Yes, the house with the wooden fence at waist height. Can’t afford to block the view of potential suitors. Just as an artisan proudly displays his wares, my mother makes an exhibition of her children for potential wooing. We’re quite the collection, my sisters and I.

While Wynne grew up in Hafren, readers are new to this corner of Droma. I needed that flavor of town life, which was only barely tasted in Middler’s Pride. The rhythms would be familiar to Wynne, its melodies bittersweet. After all, she was never allowed to befriend anyone in the town. She witnesses life happening, but can only interact with it as a bird in a cage.

This sense of isolation, love, and desperation reminded me of Anne Dudley’s score to Tristan and Isolde. I’ve used this score before, but I’d never felt it bond with a story so well as with this one. The story of lovers kept apart vibrates in the strings as the piano keys slowly dance round a hope, the smallest hope that refuses to leave the heart.

Wynne’s heart never loses hope, or love, no matter the confinement or pressure put upon her. I need to continue exploring music to find her spirit (and perhaps the spirit of her antagonist, too), but capturing her heart’s song has helped me discover more of her voice: the hope that fills it, the sadness that trails it.

Find the heart’s song of your hero, and watch her deepest passions resonate with the setting, other characters, and most importantly, your readers.